Service of Burying the Lead in a Story About Art Recovery

June 23rd, 2022

Categories: Artist, News, Newspapers, Theft

Congrats to the New Paltz, N.Y. curator and librarian who located two Ammi Phillips [1788-1865] oil paintings of Dirck D. Wynkoop and his wife, Annatje Eltinge stolen from the local historical society– Historic Huguenot Street–50 years ago. New York Times reporter Vimal Patel wrote a good piece covering how they unearthed the primitive portraits of descendants of first Dutch settlers in the area so the FBI could close the recapture. The buyer didn’t know that the pictures were stolen and they are back at the historical society.

The amateur detectives found the pictures in a Sotheby’s catalog. They had been sold in 2005 for $13,000. Phillips portraits have sold as much as in the early seven figures.

Phillips worked for 50 years and of 2,000 pictures he was thought to have painted, some 400 have been attributed to him. Many 19th century American itinerant primitive portrait artists didn’t sign their work or for other reasons remain anonymous.

But what got me in this story was the auction house’s passive role 17 years ago. I think if not a headline, it should warrant a subhead.

Sotheby’s didn’t appear to perform due diligence when it accepted the portraits. Patel reported: “The couple’s names were on the backs of the paintings. Ms. Johnson said that should have been enough information for the auction house to know the paintings were stolen.” Carol Johnson, one of the successful sleuths, is a librarian at Elting Memorial Library in town.

Patel wrote: “A lack of transparency among auction houses and a desire to protect the privacy of art buyers and sellers create a culture in which art theft can flourish, said Erin Thompson, an associate professor of art crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Dr. Thompson says auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s argue that art is often sold under sensitive circumstances — the ‘three D’s’ of death, divorce and debt. According to Dr. Thompson, these are the circumstances that the auction houses contend beg for privacy.”

Thompson added that this approach sets the stage for laundering stolen work.

Have you heard of other citizens being instrumental in finding long lost art or objects? Do you think that auction houses should be proactive in vetting the work they sell so as to identify stolen works?

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2 Responses to “Service of Burying the Lead in a Story About Art Recovery”

  1. ASK Said:

    In my view, auction houses have no real incentive to question or investigate attributions or sources for the works for many reasons…among them the time and cost of such research and the “sensitivities” of important collectors. Also how many businesses do you know of where you can collect a percentage from both the buyer and the seller?

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Left to their own devices they won’t. If “encouraged” by law, they might. They shouldn’t need to for inexpensive items. But if, say, the estimated value of something is over $10,000, or of $50,000, or some appropriate number–then they should be forced to do so.

    And you are right…what a deal! They make money going and coming. Wowza!

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